Anne Sebba has sought out and interviewed scores of women, and brings us their unforgettable testimonies whilst writing Les Parisiennes , winner of the Franco-British Society Book Prize 2016. Her fascinating cast includes both native Parisiennes and temporary residents: American women and Nazi wives; spies, mothers, mistresses, artists, fashion designers and aristocrats. The result is an enthralling account of life during the Second World War and in the years of recovery and recrimination that followed the Liberation of Paris in 1944. It is a story of fear, deprivation and secrets – and, as ever in the French capital, glamour and determination.
Here Anne Sebba discusses interviewing witnesses for her book.
Now that I look back, I am both appalled and amazed at my confidence, six years ago, that this was the moment to tell the story of how women in Nazi Occupied Paris survived. Or didn’t.
I had no idea what I would find nor who I’d interview to find it.
But French history in the 1930’s has always been a deep and long standing interest of mine and I just knew there must be stories to tell before the generation who lived through the War died out. My mother in law, at a ‘healthy-but-may-go-any-time’ 92, is a constant reminder of that. At the same time I also realised that enough water had flowed under enough bridges that perhaps, just perhaps, those women who had been teenage resisters – as many were – were finally ready to tell their stories. They did not want to die without passing on the truth about what it was like and what they did.
The week I signed my contract for this book I found myself sitting next to an interesting art historian at a wedding and, although lots of people in such circumstances feign polite interest in your project saying ‘oh I can help you with that’, few actually mean it. This one, however, did. A day later he sent me the name of a cousin in Paris who, he vaguely mentioned, ‘had some connections with the resistance.’
I was off! I made an appointment to meet her and, although she herself was too young to have any real memories, it turned out her father was a key member of the underground resistance, so important that there is now a street named after him in Paris! She, being half Catholic and half Jewish, had been swiftly spirited away to the south of France in 1940 but was able to introduce me to many other men and women who all added something to my patchwork of stories.
I was lucky to have started with such a sympathetic witness as I realise that back then, although I thought I knew so much, I knew next to nothing! I must have given myself away every time I replied with “excuse me, what was that you just said?”
I was lucky too that she was so (relatively) young (in her late eighties) and switched on. I could phone to make an appointment and know that she had heard me, would write it down and not forget. One of the key difficulties of researching this book was dealing with several nonagenarians who did not like email, were forgetful, or did not understand my inadequate French over the phone. I had several missed appointments (my fault or theirs, it didn’t really matter) but which left me on a street corner wondering what to do.
“Ah, but it’s Paris! How wonderful,” said my unsympathetic friends. But no, it wasn’t. I hadn’t come to Paris to shop. And Eurostar is not cheap so I always booked the last possible train for returning in the hope of maximising interviews but then often found myself hanging about the Gare du Nord for hours if my work was done for the day. Paris has beautiful shops and I did NOT want to be tempted. But… at least there are some terrific restaurants across the road from the Terminus and I have sampled a few of them!
On balance, once a witness had agreed to see me, they were open and prepared to talk. Just occasionally I found a change of heart had set in between the time when they agreed and the actual meeting. They would all start the session with a big sigh and then say “Ah, mais c’est très compliqué!” One thing I’ve learned about human nature from writing this book is that most people want to talk, to share their life’s experiences. It’s unusual to find someone who wants to keep secrets forever, however shocking the experiences might have been.